ALPENA, Mich. –
Radio chatter buzzes in the background of the Operations Building at the Alpena Combat Readiness Center as mission liaisons are relaying information amongst each other during Northern Strike 21-2. Master Sgt. Chad Harris, 172nd Attack Squadron Intelligence Operations supervisor, moves through the building tracking down resolutions for his asset, the MQ-9 Reaper.
The MQ-9 Reaper made its debut at Northern Strike in 2019 with its first Launch and Recovery Element (LRE) and first flight in Michigan’s airspace. Northern Strike is a joint forces, multi-component, multinational exercise hosted by the Michigan National Guard designed to build readiness and enhance interoperability with coalition forces to fight and win. In the few years that the MQ-9 Reaper has supported the Northern Strike exercise, its participation has evolved drastically.
“In 2019, we tried to be more ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) focused during Northern Strike,” said Tech. Sgt. Gerad Pyszka, Alpena CRTC live mission operation intelligence analyst. “However, we weren’t quite connecting the dots.”
That connection was brought in by Harris, 172nd ATKS intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance tactical controller (ITC), Michigan Air National Guard in Battle Creek. Augmenting the team at the Alpena CRTC with a subject matter expert on the MQ-9 mission opened lines of communication across the training platform.
“Last year, one of the things I noticed with the communication between aircraft is that we're not all talking the same language.” Harris said. “But I'm able to translate what's happening with the exercise and convert that into a task that looks like a daily mission that they've received.”
Prior to Harris’s on-ground presence, mission coordination was made by Pyszka, who stressed that Harris’ added presence to the mission was a relief.
“When MSgt. Harris joined us for Northern Strike 19, operations became much easier by having that subject matter expert right next to me,” said Pyszka. “Not only was he able to take some duties off of my hands, but he was able to translate MQ-9 language in a way we could all understand.”
Harris’s experience with the MQ-9 and A-10 missions provided him the skills to assist in providing relatable training to the pilots, sensors, and intelligence analysts manning the aircraft, as well as the ground support units integrating with them on the battlefield.
“Working with the personnel in Battle Creek, I am able to help build Northern Strike training scenarios to make the exercise as realistic as possible,” said Harris.
Integrating the MQ-9 LRE into Northern Strike at Alpena allows for the aircraft to immediately enter the range, saving flight time as well as providing added opportunities for training and support.
“We fly 365 days a year in our real-world mission. Northern Strike is very similar to our real-world training, but it also gives us opportunities to do things that we don't get to do on those missions,” Harris said. “We are able to train in tasks that you wouldn't be called to do unless you get the practice like you do with Northern Strike.”
Applying an asset like Harris provides an extra level of support to the members' training and a 10,000-foot view of the entire mission that MQ-9 team members may not be able to conceptualize from a monitor.
“The benefit of having an subject matter expert working with you is that the customers he communicates with get better training because he knows what they need,” said Pyszka.
For the 110th Operations Group, the MQ-9 mission at Northern Strike has been a conduit to provide all of its members crucial training, from the youngest Airman to the most seasoned officer.
“Like in any other career field, you are training a replacement or relief,” said Harris. “Our leadership has arranged for our junior Airmen to observe and participate in Northern Strike to inspire them to add their contributions and bring fresh ideas in future years.”
The MQ-9 Reaper is a multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that supports intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions during training in the U.S. as well as deployed for combat missions overseas.